Last updated: February 5, 2018
If you read my list of startups using artificial intelligence to drug discovery, you may have wondered: how much traction do these companies actually have? And perhaps, if you work for a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company, a related question: are any of my competitors working with them?
To help answer such questions, this post summarizes how pharmaceutical companies apply artificial intelligence in drug discovery, including through partnerships with AI startups. As with my startup list, I aim to keep this regularly updated. So if I'm missing anything (which I certainly am, because details of partnerships are usually kept secret), or you have news to share, please email me. Or post your update in the comments.
Abbvie has been quiet about its use of artificial intelligence in drug discovery. But it does have a confidential project listed with Atomwise. Also, in September 2016, Abbvie partner AiCure announced how its AI-based patient monitoring platform improved adherence in an Abbvie phase 2 schizophrenia trial.
In August 2017, AstraZeneca and Berg Health announced a partnership to discover therapeutic targets for neurological diseases such as Parkinson's. In February 2018, AstraZeneca announced a partnership with Alibaba to apply technology including artificial intelligence to patient diagnosis and treatment. (They shared few details.)
Astellas appears to be focusing AI drug discovery on repurposing existing compounds. It publicized a "Drug Repurposing & Application Management" in February 2015. In December of that year, Astellas and Biovista announced a partnership around drug repurposing. And in January 2016 Astellas and NuMediiannounced a similar repurposing collaboration.
One of the earliest AI drug discovery partnerships I could find predates the recent hype about machine learning. Between the Canadian arm of Boehringer Ingelheim and Numerate, in December 2011, it doesn't even refer to AI. A Numerate press release states that it is "leveraging the power of cloud computing and novel computational methods to transform the drug design process." The partnership is focused on generating small molecule drug leads for an unnamed infectious disease target.
Evotec is difficult to describe. It refers to itself as a "drug discovery alliance and development partnership company." Its partners include many more well-known pharmaceutical companies, such as Bayer, Sanofi, Genentech, Janssen, and UCB. It also has a tight partnership with Exscientia. Evotec announced an initial collaboration in April 2016 and an investment in September 2017. The partnership focuses on creating bispecific small molecule immuno-oncology therapies. These are treatments that can hit two different cancer targets simultaneously.
In June 2017, Genentech and GNS Healthcare announced a partnership to find and validate potential cancer drug targets by analyzing data from sources such as electronic medical records and next generation sequencing.
GSK is probably the most active of all pharmaceutical companies in applying artificial intelligence to drug discovery. It created an in-house artificial intelligence unit. (Initially called "Medicines Discovered Using Artificial Intelligence.” Now called “In silico Drug Discovery Unit.”) And it has partnered with startups including Exscientia and Insilico Medicine. The partnership with Excscientia, announced in July 2017, is to discover novel and selective small molecules for up to 10 disease-related targets across undisclosed therapeutic areas. The partnership with Insilico, announced in August 2017, is to identify novel biological targets and pathways. GSK is also part of the Accelerating Therapeutics for Opportunities in Medicine (ATOM) Consortium, which aims to leverage artificial intelligence to go from drug target to patient-ready therapy in less than a year. (An ambitious goal.) GSK gave ATOM chemical and in vitro biological data for more than 2 million compounds it has screened.
One of the more unique AI drug development partnerships I've seen is that between Janssen and BenevolentAI. In November 2016, they announced that BenevolentAI would license the right to develop, manufacture, and commercialize clinical stage drug candidates from Janssen after using artificial intelligence to identify untapped potential in Janssen's portfolio. This deal may already be bearing fruit, as BenevolentAI recently launched a phase 2b trial for a drug from the partnership to treat sleepiness in people with Parkinson's disease. In January 2018, Johnson & Johnson Innovation announced a partnership between Janssen and WinterLight Labs to try predicting dementia and neurodegenerative diseases from voice samples obtained through Janssen clinical trials.
Like Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck struck an early partnership with Numerate, which they announced in March 2012. The collaboration focuses on generating novel small molecule drug leads for an unnamed cardiovascular disease target. Merck also has a confidential project with Atomwise.
On the commercial side, Novartis has been quite innovative in using digital media. Its heavily digital campaign for Gilenya, for example, won multiple awards. But it has made relatively few big moves with artificial intelligence. This could be about to change, with incoming CEO Vas Narasimhan announcing in a September 2017 interview that he planned to partner with or acquire AI and data analytics companies. In January 2018, an article revealed that Novartis has partnered with McKinsey’s QuantumBlack to analyze clinical trial operations with machine learning. They claim the work has reduced patient enrolment times by 10-15%.
Of all the companies on this list, only one has publicly promoted a drug discovery partnership using IBM Watson: Pfizer. In December 2016, Pfizer and IBM announced a partnership to accelerate drug discovery in immuno-oncology. There has been little announced since (at least, that I can find), but a string of negative reports about IBM Watson's capabilities (here, here, here, here, here, here, and I could go on), including in healthcare, call into question how fruitful the partnership might be.
Another prominent Exscientia partner is Sanofi. Their partnership, announced in May 2017, focuses on finding bispecific small molecule drugs for metabolic diseases such as diabetes and their comorbidities. Sanofi and Berg Health also announced a partnership in October 2017 to assess potential biomarkers for seasonal flu vaccine performance. Earlier, in April 2016, Sanofi's Genzyme unit and Recursion Pharmaceuticals announced a partnership to use Recursion's drug repurposing platform to screen Sanofi molecules for genetic disease targets.
In February 2017, Japan's Santen, which focuses on ophthalmic products, and TwoXAR announced a partnership to find new drug candidates for glaucoma.
Another partner of the very active Numerate, Servier and the startup announced in June 2017 a collaboration to design small molecule modulators of ryanodine receptor 2 (RyR2), a target thought to be important in cardiovascular disease that has eluded drug-ability. The collaboration could lead to new treatments for heart failure and arrhythmias.
Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma
One of Exscientia's early partners, Sumitomo Dainippon and the startup announced in September 2015 initial results of a collaboration to identify new treatments for psychiatric diseases. The first compound identified was a bispecific, dual-agonist molecule that selectively activates two GPCR receptors from two distinct families.
Another Numerate partner, Takeda and the startup announced in June 2017 that they would collaborate on identifying candidates for oncology, gastroenterology, and central nervous system disorders.